Telling New Orleans

The Wire's creator moves south in Treme on HBO.

"Price was twelve, bruh."

"Them twelve hundred was for eight pieces."

A deal's going down, yeah. But not the sort we're used to witnessing between black men on a television show set in an American city. Certainly not a David Simon drama on HBO.

On the set: Steve Zahn, Kermit Ruffin and Wendell Pierce.
Skip Bolen
On the set: Steve Zahn, Kermit Ruffin and Wendell Pierce.

Yet before even a word of dialogue is uttered come clues. A saxophonist licks, then adjusts his reed. Valve oil gets applied to a trombone. Soldiers and cops stand guard. Two little kids dance to a faint parade rhythm, which is soon supplanted by the bass booming from an SUV. An unseen trumpet sounds an upward figure, followed by a tuba's downward groove.

Back to the deal: One guy delivering those lines, an imposing-looking sort, is Gralen Banks, an actor who is also a member of the Black Men of Labor, one of some three dozen Social Aid & Pleasure Clubs that sponsor second-line parades in New Orleans; the other, diminutive and serious-looking, is Keith Frazier, the actual bass drummer and co-founder of the Rebirth Brass Band. They're working out a price for eight musicians to march in and play a four-hour parade in a shattered economy. The scene re-creates the first second-line parade since Hurricane Katrina — a memorial for a local chef, Austin Leslie, a true-life fallen hero of a culture in which music and cuisine, along with architecture and dance, are of one piece. This is New Orleans, three months past the floods caused by the levee failures in 2005. The hulking, extinct refrigerators and carcasses of former houses look familiar from news reports, as to some degree do the horns and drums. But now foreground and background are flipped.

The danger and dislocation you've heard about in the streets of New Orleans is real; it equals if not surpasses that depicted by The Wire, Simon's finely detailed evocation of his hometown, Baltimore, as told through the intersecting lives of cops, drug dealers, politicians, teachers, and journalists through five HBO seasons. But there's also a devastating beauty in New Orleans, a type neither found nor meaningfully understood anywhere else. Whereas The Wire's title referenced a police wiretap on a drug ring, suggesting as well unseen links between street action and the corridors of power, Treme, which debuts on April 11, plugs directly into an indigenous culture that has served as a lifeline for a city still inching toward recovery. That lifeline is extended principally by traditional jazz and brass-band musicians; the Social Aid & Pleasure Club members that mount Sunday parades; and — perhaps the most mysterious and essential group of all — Mardi Gras Indians, who dress in elaborate feathered and beaded suits three times a year.

The pilot episode's parade under way, another negotiation takes place, this one setting off what will become a running comic bit: With a deft mixture of desperation, charm, and speed, Antoine Batiste, the freelance musician played by Wendell Pierce, talks down a cab fare. That score settled, he rushes up to the band and begins to blow his own commentary on the tune, Rebirth's "Feel Like Funkin' It Up." It is, in all likelihood, the first opening monologue by a central character in a television series delivered wordlessly, on trombone.

In early March, at his production office in New Orleans' Lower Garden District, Simon is struggling with the fine points of a later episode's script. He's reluctant to draw a strong connection between his former series and Treme. Yet he describes a natural progression of thought. "The Wire was a tract about how political power and money rout themselves," he says. "But there was no place to reference on some level why it matters, emotionally, that America has been given over to those things. This show is about culture, and it's about what was at stake. Because apart from culture, on some empirical level, it does not matter if all New Orleans washes into the Gulf, and if everyone from New Orleans ended up living in Houston or Baton Rouge or Atlanta. Culture is what brought this city back. Not government. There was and has been no initiative by government at any level to contemplate in all seriousness the future of New Orleans. Yet New Orleans is coming back, and it's sort of done it one second-line at a time, one crawfish étouffée at a time, one moment at a time."

He's right. Those earliest second-lines were singular and stirring demonstrations of a then and perhaps still unacknowledged right to return, as were the first new club gigs. The trumpeter Kermit Ruffins, one of quite a few New Orleans musicians who make cameo appearances in Treme, recalls the post-Katrina resumption of his Thursday-night engagement at Vaughan's bar: "They had electricity, and they were burning wood outside to kill the awful smell in the air. There were tears in some people's eyes. That was the saddest gig I ever played, but, in a sense, also the happiest. We were coming back."

The cast of Treme and the characters they play draw on all walks of New Orleans life. Pierce, who portrayed surly detective Bunk Moreland on The Wire, was born and raised in the city's Pontchartrain Park neighborhood; his character's last name, Batiste, references one of the city's storied musical lineages. Clarke Peters (stoic detective Lester Freamon on The Wire) plays the Mardi Gras Indian Chief Albert Lambreaux, who is also a jazz bassist: His scenes were vetted by Donald Harrison Jr., a New Orleans native who straddles both worlds in real life. Davis Rogan, a local musician and former WWOZ-FM DJ, provided a real-life template for the musical passion and sketchy employment history of Davis McAlary, the character played by Steve Zahn. Kim Dickens plays Janette Desautel, a chef fighting to keep her restaurant open. John Goodman plays Creighton Bernette, a Tulane University professor whose angry declamations ("The flooding of New Orleans was a manmade catastrophe") were drawn in part from those of blogger Ashley Morris; Melissa Leo plays his wife, Toni, a civil rights attorney who often finds herself defending musicians. The numerous musicians playing themselves, often in performance, range from such recognizable stars as Elvis Costello and Dr. John to local heroes like Ruffins and Troy "Trombone Shorty" Andrews.

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